Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: The Wild Tchoupitoulas
Continuing our countdown to Mardi Gras, which is this week: an album that was overlooked at the time of its release in 1976, The Wild Tchoupitoulas has nevertheless come to be considered as a landmark of New Orleans music. Not only that – it’s a great Mardi Gras party album.
The Wild Tchoupitoulas (pronounced Choo-Pi-TOO-las) was a Thirteenth Ward street gang that put down its weapons and picked up the colorful feathery trappings of Mardi Gras Indians. A tradition dating back to the mid-19th century, the Mardi Gras Indians dressed up in a wild takeoff of Native American garb so they could get around racial segregation. When a large Caribbean population began to grow in the Crescent City that culture assimilated itself into the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
So, we have The Wild Tchoupitoulas, formed by George Landry, a.k.a. “Chief Jolly.” He had a musical background and his Indians performed a wild call-and-response routine during Mardi Gras parades. When he was approached to possibly cut an album, Jolly recruited as a producer one of the biggest names in New Orleans music – Allen Toussaint.
And for instrumental backup, Chief Jolly didn’t have to look far: he had some nephews who played, their last name was Neville. His nephews Art and Cyril Neville played with seminal NOLA funksters the Meters, who often joined Toussaint on his hit-making projects. With the Meters in the fold, Art and Cyril invited their brother Charles, who was a jazz sideman, and little brother Aaron. Aaron Neville, with an otherworldly voice, who had regional hits like “Tell It Like It Is” and “Everybody Plays The Fool.”
The album kicks off with “Brother John,” the tale of a fallen gang brother, and instantly you can hear the intricate rhythms of the Meters and Art Neville’s sweet keyboard work. “Meet De Boys On The Battlefront” is an Indian “battle” cry – instead of fighting, this battle is a musical one. “Indians, Here Dey Come” and “Indian Red” are also born from Chief Jolly’s street chants; it’s worth sitting through the long first part of “Indian Red” to get to that little funked-up part about five minutes, 40 seconds in.
Toussaint puts in a ringer, “Hey Pocky-A-Way,” which was a hit of sorts for the Meters in 1974. This version is a little looser than the original, and it features on background vocals the Brothers Neville harmonizing together for the first time.
When The Wild Tchoupitoulas was released it wasn’t a hit (except in New Orleans, of course) but it did inspire the Nevilles to perform together as a brother act. Hence, the Neville Brothers – and when they released their second album in 1981 (the stone classic Fiyo On The Bayou), they kicked it off with a rockin’ version of “Hey Pocky-A-Way” and dedicated it to George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry, who died in 1980.
The Neville Brothers and the Meters continue to be active, and every time one of these units takes a stage it’s a reminder that they deserve more than just about anyone else to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Forget Mardi Gras – any time of the year, this is essential American music.